Sunday, 22 June 2008

Buy oysters direct online

Buying oysters online is a treat, although digging out the farms between the London travel cards, rock bands, girl’s night outs and American sites is a bit tricky. Here is a quick list of suppliers in the UK who deliver within 24 hours.

Oyster plate collecting

Another side phenomenon accompanied the rise of the oyster in urban dining…plates designed just for oysters. All the great French and German companies produced specialised, highly decorative plates, usually with six indentations for the oysters and a seventh for lemon or a sauce, with slight variations depending on whether the oysters were to be served on ice, in the shell or shucked. Those for ice alone are the oldest, superceded by those with indentations because they were less messy but also the rough shells scratched the delicate patterns and so these gave way to the small shapes, which could just take a single raw oyster out of the shell. Small two and three pronged forks were fashioned to bring the oyster into line with the new etiquette of the table. Originally such things were made for aristocratic chateaux but slowly the middle classes acquired the enthusiasm to have appropriate plates and cutlery.

Naturally the plates were decorated. Some of the most vibrant and rustic primitivism come from the oyster region of Quimper, more supremely elegant often floral and pale coloured from Limoges - above - , or more modern powerful abstracts from Provence as in Vallauris; artistic fish inspired shapes from the German manufactuer Waechtersbach; glass from Lalique and also some individual touches from Union Porcelain Works of Greenpoint, New York, in the late 1800s.

In England Doulton made two differently patterned with flowers around 1900; one of their former workers George Jones made a colourful set with large replica shells around the outside centred on a small egg cup divot in the centre for the condiment; and the smaller, later maker Samuel Lear produced a Portuguese inspired sunflower design.

Herbert Minton first introduced his vibrant lustrously glazed majolica at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. This made oyster plates affordable to the Victorian middle classes where porcelain and other fine china had been the concern only of the royal and grandest houses. His oyster plate design though he borrowed from Sevres in France.

The oyster plate still has its loyal devotees. There is an oyster society that collects plates at; there was an online museum at but this seems to have fallen by the wayside but the auction site lists daily sales – more than six pages at the last look with 260 plates for trade. Some plates fetch prices upwards of $3,000 though most go for a fraction of that. Another source is with plates around $300. New designs can still sell for £175.
And, of course, there are essential books for the enthusiasts such as Collecting Oyster Plates by Jeffrey Snyder or the rival Oyster Plates by Jim & Vivian Karsnitz.

Predictably with oysters, even in the sedate world of plate making, controversy stalks, in this case the validity or otherwise of reproducing old designs. Collectors are appalled.

Marco Pierre White - oysters with Sauterne jelly

In the days that the mercurial Marco Pirre White used to cook in the French style he refined his way with oysters in the same genre. When he first made his name he served poached oysters back in their shells on a small bundle of tagliettelle garnished with caviar and sauced with a beurre blanc. He then rationalised the oyster for restaurant purposes at the Mirabelle to create an epic cold dish, the shell lined with a puree of spinach, the oysters poached lightly in Sauterne and gelatine and then set to cool in the shell, served garnish with crème fraiche and or caviar.

Roellinger - a scavenger's curry of oysters

Olivier Roellinger at Maisons de Bricourt in Brittany works closer to the water than the others and is a part of the oyster culture but sometimes features this daring dish on the menu using curry spices for the seasoning, embellishing a teaspoon of basic curry powder, with coriander, powdered saffron, turmeric all spice, cinnamon, dried green mango powder, just the sort of contents that might have spilled off a spice shipment smashed on the rocks off St Malo (but would not be out of place either in India where oysters are given a dry crumb coating seasoned with such spices and then fried or grilled quickly). Roellinger though conservatively uses less than a teaspoon to season his stock reduction.

Oysters with cabbage

Boil half a litre of white wine to reduce its volume, add chicken stock and 2 ml of the spice mix. Infuse 20 minutes. Separate four prime cabbage leaves, poach and then refresh in cold water and set aside. Cut two squid into strips and sear briefly in a non stick pan. Open the oysters and put the liquor in a pan separately
Heat the cabbage leaves in the oyster juice with some butter Reheat the wine and stock infusion, bind it with more butter
Place a cabbage leaf in a warm shallow bowl. Slip the drained oysters into the buttered infusion, which should be warm not boiling. Arrange the oysters in each cabbage leaf. Coat with the infusion, which has been enriched with oyster flavour. Garnish with the salad burnett, nori and lamb's lettuce.

Bocuse - oyster soupe Lyonnaise

Paul Bocuse, the legendary and avuncular totem of La Cuisine Francaise, manages to evoke both the classicism of a vichyssoisse with the local slant of adding grated Gruyere at the end but retaining the complexity of texture with fried bread. There is more than a nod here to a Marseille style fish soup with its Gruyere, croutons and rouille. Lyons, of course, would have been able to pick any ingredient it wanted trading north or south along the Rhone, so this Lyonnaise variation may genuinely be a reflection of approaches long past.

Oyster Soupe Lyonnaise

Sweat three leeks in melted butter till soft, about seven minutes Add four peeled and cubed russet potatoes, mix well, cover with six cups of water and simmer 20 minutes. Set aside. Fry some cubed bread for croutons
Liquidise the soup. Add a cup of cream and a grating of nutmeg and return to the pan
Add a quart of shucked oysters and their liquor and poach till they curl.
Lay the soup up in warm bowls, top with croutons, a sprinkle of Gruyere, parsley and paprika. Spoon chowder into soup bowls; top each with a few croutons and sprinkle with Gruyére, parsley, and paprika. Serve with any additional croutons, cheese, and parsley on the side.
There are other recipes, not dissimilar where the leek, often a favoured pairing, and potato are used as a sauce to serve in the shell with the oysters laid back on top and grilled, though these do not seem as well thought out as the Bocuse soup

Guerard - oysters with coriander and coffee

At Michel Guerard’s Eugenie Les Bains they are served freshly opened with a zest of ginger, coriander and a Chantilly of green (unroasted) coffee.

Lucas Carton - Belons with Bellota Bellota

At Troisgros in Roanne oysters are served warm with sorrel and cumin. At Lucas Carton in Paris - above - large Belon oysters are roasted in their sealed shells, and served with white butter sauce with nuts, toasts and Bellota-Bellota Spanish ham plus a glass of Manzanilla sherry to compliment the ham. Herein at least there is some homage to the Basques from around Arcachon where they are served on the shell with little crepinette sausages (truffled for Christmas), bread, and the local white wine Entre Deux Mers. Although that history has been hijacked by Bordeaux the proper progeny is to the Basques by dint of the chorizo and their specially grown peppers that signal the dish as Basque, not Bordelais.

Taillevant - oysters with truffles

The big French restaurants have all been tempted to set down their own essay on how to best treat the oyster, although there are no hints of ancient links to regions or styles, just the luxury of truffles or, as with the Duitch masters paintings before them, to exotic spices

Taillevant in Paris, serves four oysters parcelled up in buttered foil with two sliced scallops, truffles, sliced leeks, a splash of mineral water (!), the juice from the oysters, salted butter. Bake five minutes.

French gastronomy

The oyster takes it place in the pantheon of French gastronomy, but as Graham Robb points out in his Discovery of France, French provincial cooking was not of any repute until the last century or until it got to Paris and was enobled by the huge brigades of the kitchens of the royal households and exported as the cuisine of royalty across Europe.

Escoffier, writing in 1907, only offers a dozen or so preparations (as against 30 or more for lobster) and none of them derive from the French provinces. He was typically extravagantly as in a puff pastry canapés filled with caviar and topped with an oyster as garnish. Lemon shrewdly goes with both. More recently, but from the same source, The Larousse Gastronomique rampantly pairs oysters with the full gamut of French sauces as if they were any other kind of fish and their main purpose was to glorify the cook’s true art of making sauces – Americaine (shellfish), Colbert (fried), Nantua (with crayfish), Normande (mushrooms and cream), Florentine (spinach), Mornay (cheese), Polonaise (horseradish), and also as a soufflés, gratinated, on skewers, in barquettes, in pastry cases, all of which reinforces the sense of glut and abundance inherited from an earlier era and an increased vocabulary.
Spinach is the most logical and usual accompaniment because of its supportive iron and any variation on egg, butter, and cream formed into an emulsion and cooked off in the shell under the grill has become a standard modern culinary shorthand.

D'Artagnan and the greening of oysters

From the Charente to the Gironde is an open oyster garden in the sea, at the heart is the Marennes-Oléron, famous for their greenish hue, caused by a single celled algae which forms on the bottom of the oyster parks in spring and colours the waters. There is a fable that surrounds the alleged discovery of this algae.

When the port of La Rochelle was besieged, which would date the discovery about 1627 (along with that of D’Artganan and the Three Musketeers who also fought there), some oysters were stashed away in the salt marshes for safekeeping. When they were retrieved, everyone was surprised at how they had turned green, eventually succumbing to the temptation to eat them. They found the flavour more delicate and subtle almost like liquid hazelnuts.

Although it turns the oyster green, the French call it blueing but have so far failed to explain or be able to replicate it in other bays or parks or even guarantee that the effect will reappear in the same park next year. Further south at Arcachon there is a similar effect, but these beds are now mainly used as a hatchery to supply the rest of France.

In the Mediterranean there are historic waters at Thau, where the Bouzigues oysters are grown on lines suspended near the surface of the water, which allows them to fatten faster than on sea beds because the natural plankton concentrates towards the surface, not the bed. The demarcation here of Special is kept for the smaller oysters harvested, which are then held back and put back in the waters for another year.

A coastline of conchyculture

Normandy produces a quarter of the French oyster harvest, from the bay of Vers which includes the Huitres d’Isigny where they are by association trying to link up with the reputation of the local cream and butter; the oldest beds at Saint Vaast la Hougue, open sea at Cotentin, and newer beds at Meuvaines-Asnelles.

North Brittany’s coastline of teeth like rocks, deep ravines, deeper estuaries and exposure to the rolling Atlantic has meant that through centuries the Bretons have fostered their oysters carefully. Here is Cancale, nestling behind St Malo overseeing its beds in the Bay of Mont St Michel, then the Bay of St Brieuc and round to Brest, Quimper, Quiberon, Morbihan each one more exposed than the next to the pure Atlantic plankton that feed in the protected and sheltered bays where it is stable enough for an oyster to gain ground.

Further south the oysters are tended in the shallow waters at the mouth of the Loire at the Bay of Bougneuf and enclosed by the peninsular of Noirmoutier. Since 1992 they have been collectively marketed as oysters of Vendée-Atlantique.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Buy oysters direct

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Parisy's prawns and mussels

While Eugène PARISY is content with prawns, although I have not been able to find out anything as to who he as.

Bellis's lobster and oysters

Hubert BELLIS (1831-1902) sets off his brilliantly red lobster with oysters - here there is none of the reaklism of the earlier Dutch paintings, this almost seems well-todo, bourgeouis. The glass of wine is discreetly tucked away. It is a very polite work!

Guet - an idealised vision

Earlier Oscar GUET (1801-1871) has a more formal scene than Sargent with his Oyster Park at Granville painted in 1827. Everyone looks very clean and wrapped up. The sands look smooth as carpet and the sea an idealised calm. The seven women to one man could well have been a normal family ratio as peasant families they would often stay behind while rhe menfolk were sent afar to sell the wares. Here the man has his cart ready to leave perhaps for Paris.

Fouce - oysters and lemon

Painters too have their own take of this intimacy. Guillaume FOUACE (1837-1895) has a simple replication approach of just oysters and lemon…that is satisfying guttural and orbital and in a very French manner it is a gastronomy, eat me painting.

Flaubert - I live like an open oyster

In French to be closed like an oyster is a common phrase to say someone is taciturn. Gustave Flaubert said in letters about himself, “I live like a bear, like an open oyster in the shell”.

France - oyster fables

France is a world leading producer and consumer of oysters, especially at Christmas when traditionally the habit from around Arcachon is widely adopted around the country and they are served on the shell with little crepinette sausages (truffled for Christmas), bread, and the local white wine Entre Deux Mers.

For a nation that prides itself on its gastronomy, it is encircled by oysters and in the language there is a poetic affection, even in the rhyming of the disease “maladies des branchies”, or the study of shellfish “conchyculture”. There is a sense of closeness and linguistic enjoyment.

Two old French fairy stories by La Fontaine have the oyster playing the central role, the one of the rat being caught in the shell of the oyster may have an element of truth to it; the other = above - has two pilgrims arguing over who should eat an oyster they have found. They ask a passer-by who promptly adjudicates by eating it himself: A moral for those wishing to join the French court.

Cancale - the oyster garvest

Cancale was known for its oysters from a very early point. It was close enough to Paris to sell its oysters to the capital delivered either via the sea and down the Seine or overland on big wheeled open wagons drawn by four horses. In 1545, Francis 1 rewarded the town with the title of “ville” in return for the privilege of supplying the royal court with oysters.

Before 1700, there was no shortage of oysters, even though restrictions on mussel harvesting had been brought in 20 years earlier. By the mid century the French navy was sent to investigate the sudden dearth of oysters and laid down precise regulations to be implemented by local bailiffs. There was to be no fishing in the summer from April 1 to October 15. The oyster fishermen themselves were to investigate and report back each year on which beds could be fished and which ones should be left, a decision to be decided by a vote of all the fishermen. Most importantly, and most well known, all the fishermen were to fish together and would leave port at a pre-arranged time in a “caravanne”.

By this husbanding, the oyster harvest revived and by the next century, 33 million oysters were being caught each year and by 1847 this figure had reached 56 million, from Cancale alone.

Cancale - the caravan leaves harbour

The bisquine head out into the bay at Cancale to mark the expression the Caravanne - under naval orders they sailed together to control and conserve the stocks.

Cancale - the bisquines

These paintings by Philippe Hulin are of Cancale's famous bisquines...
In other Cancale images, other women are shown a few metres down the beach. The oysters are piled high, stacked in neat wooden low pens. The women are bent over gathering and putting oysters in baskets. Obviously, these small parks like paddling pools, have been fixed in the sand so the oysters can be collected at low tide ready for market.

The people of Cancale symbolise a respected grit and toughness earned in the fearful fishing journeys the men would take to Newfoundland fishing for cod, leaving the town for months and passing on the oyster cultivation to the old men, women and children. As in other parts of Brittany, the rural poverty meant the coastal fishing was a crucial part of their history, survival and was tended with care. They built special flat bottomed boats to harvest the oysters. They had four huge sails, sometimes with as much as 300 square metres of canvas to grab the wind, called bisquines.

Cancale’s oyster shells have been uncovered in Rome; Louis XIV ordered them sent to his palace daily; Napoleon took them on the long march to Moscow.

The enormous tides – 14 metres – that sweep the bay below the Mont St Michel on the other side of the promontory from St Malo give the oysters from these beds their freshness and distinction.

The pre-history of this area must be among the oldest in Europe. From here came the Veneti and their boats; from here came France’s most famous cartoon character of Asterix; and here lie the oldest of megalithic stones; to here the west country Celts fled the persecution or cruel insociability of Anglo Saxons before the whole peninsular was engulfed in the totality of what is now France.

John Singer Sargent - Cancale's oyster pickers

An early portrait by the precociously talented American ex patriate John Singer Sargent features the oyster beach at Cancale, in Brittany. Five women have been abandoned with two children while their men are presumably off fishing in Newfoundland, and they have been left alone with their baskets. Sargent was as adept as Cartier Bresson the photographer a century later in capturing what Bresson called the decisive moment. Here the grandmother is overlooking the little boy pulling his trousers up above his knees. The children are barefoot, the women wearing clogs. The lighthouse provides a solitary pencil thin solidity in a landscape of wisp and wind, a mention of danger and there is the suggestion too of a mast of a bigger ship across the bluff. Two of the younger women are gossiping, the other two are pointedly alone. Two have bare legs, the others are wearing stockings so maybe they are going to shuck rather than collect, or will split up for different tasks. The last girl seems petulant, hand on hip; the front woman looks resigned, sadly beautiful peering out to see looking for something. Perhaps in 1878 the boats were still facing a crisis, and the forlorn resigned mood that seems to hang on the women’s shoulders might be taken as one of despair that perhaps again that week there would be fewer oysters. Or wistfully and fearfully that their men might not return from the icy waters of the north Atlantic.

Sargent made his name as a portrait painter and is often remembered for coining the phrase “a portrait is a picture of a person with something wrong with their mouth”, but here none of the women are close enough to visualise their faces, even one little girl has her head obscured by a basket. The striking thing, now though perhaps not then, is that the tide is obviously going out but far from these women heading to a 21th century style beach picnic, they are arriving to work. The sun is shining but they wear shawls, scarves, rough aprons with ragged edges that could have been torn from sheets. Their formation is almost circular against a soft cloud and sand background, in outline suggestively of an oyster.

Maupassant - salted sweets

Ostend oysters...

"Small and rich, looking like little ears enfolded in shells, and melting between the palate and the tongue like salted sweets."
- Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) Bel Ami

Northern Ireland - the oyster under threat of extinction

The pollution of loughs in Northern Ireland though has been severe enough to prompt the World Wide Fund For Nature to suggest that 13 out of 16 indigenous marine species, including the oyster, are under threat of extinction.

You could argue, if you had a mind, that other industries were more valuable; that harvesting any natural resource always runs the risk of that resource being finite; that oystermongering is an old fashioned hard industry that would not create any jobs; that there is no market for oysters anymore; that attempts to reverse the trend would have no guarantee of success; that it was just bad luck that all these once abundant estuaries and others I may overlooked were just idle, haphazard victims of pollution and inevitable disease; you could argue that oysters do not matter; you could even argue that oysters are too dangerous a food for our times.

You could argue all that, but it would not be true.

Scotland oysters - pollution

Pollution with heavy metals killed the Firth beds beds. Ultimately the shipbuilding that was set up to support the oystermen, outgrew the trade and killed it.

Loch Ryan, near Stranrear survives. Ryan is now the largest fishery in Scotland. It was bequeathed to the Wallace family in 1702 by William 111. At its height, in 1910, more than 30 boats worked the waters taking 130 tonnes a year, but stocks declined and in 1957 it was handed over to the Scottish Marine Biological Association to see if sustainable oyster growing could be revived. It has slowly been brought back into production by the Colchester Oyster Fishery and then Loch Ryan Shellfish. Further north oysters have been cultivated at Kilbrandon off the West Coast and at Loch Fyne and sold out through their restaurant chain

Saki - sympathetic unselfishness

Another memorable inspiration on oysters came from Saki, the Scottish writer Hector Hugh Munro who lived from 1870 to 1916 when they would have been easily available:

"Oysters are more beautiful than any religion...There's nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster."

Munro also made this wry quip:

You needn't tell me that a man who doesn't love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He's simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.”

Music hall balads - of tubs and fubseys

This bawdy music hall shanty Oyster Nan is obviously also Scottish. A fubsey is a “small chubby person”

An oyster nan stood by her tub
To show her vicious inclination
She gave her noblest parts a scrub
And sighed for want of copulation
A vintner of no little fame
Whop excelled red and white can sell ye
Beheld the dirty little dame
As she stood scratching her belly

Come in says he you silly slut
Tis now a rare convenient minute
I’ll lay the itching of your scut
Except some greedy devil be in it
With that the flat capped fubsey smiled
And would have blushed but that she could not
Alas says she, we are soon beguiled
By men to do these things, we should not

From door they went behind the bar
As tis by common fame reported
And there upon as turkey chair
Unseen the loving couple sported
But being called by company
As he was taking pains to please her
I’m coming, coming Sir, says he
My dear and so am I, says she

Her molehill belly swelled about
Into a mountain quickly after
And when the pretty mouse crept out
The creature caused a mighty laughter
And now she has learned the pleasing game
Although much pain and shame it cost her
She daily ventures at the same
And shuts and opens like an oyster

Scotland - the Dredging Song

This fishing song – singing was much associated with both gathering oysters as well as their selling in Glasgow – is from Newhaven and certainly before 1850 and called The Dredging Song.

Getting wind and kind to rhyme is almost as verbally dextrous as reducing oyster to o’u, unless the latter is read as o meaning oysters and for you.

The herring loves the merry moonlicht
The mackerel loves the wind
But the oyster loves the dredging song
For it comes o the gentle kind

Scottish oysters - the creel lassie's cry

Scotland too had an oyster history in the Firth of Forth which it defended fiercely. When Essex boatmen came apoaching, they were bombarded with stones. Where today a sign reads not to eat the fish caught in the waters, in the late 1800s, as many as 30 million oysters were taken a year.

The oyster girl with her creel was a familiar sight doing her rounds of the tenements. Some of this culture was caught in song, the oyster humbled to just two letters in the dialect as o’u:

At night round the ingle sae canty are we,
The oyster lass brings her treat frae the sea;
Wi music and sang, as time passes by,
We hear in the distance the creel-lassie's cry.

Caller o'u! Caller o'u! Caller o'u!
Frae the Forth. Caller o'u! Caller o'u!

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Sunset on the Medway

The deadly sweep of bonomia

This early photograph is of a Whitstable crew around 1860 of a Captain Alfred Gambrelli.

Bonomia was first seen in northern Brittany in 1979, then the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland. It is thought it may have been imported from a laboratory in California where they called it Microcell Disease because the symptoms could only be seen with a microscope. It does not just kill the oysters bit infects the beds making them sterile.

The native Essex oyster was diseased or deceased, or hopefully is in hibernation to return miraculously at some point in the future. Most oysters sold in Colchester since have been imported. Maldon is still the biggest oyster beds in the south, but today these are mostly Pacifics (which has not stopped the poaching, these days often using scuba gear) with only a few surviving natives, which can still be found at the Shed among the boats at West Mersea beach. A native oyster today will likely have been spawned in the clean waters of Loch Ryan in Sotland and only brought to Essex for the last months of its life.

On the other side of the water, the Whitstable Royal Oyster Fishery Company had not made a profit since 1928. At the annual general meeting in 1975 it was revealed that it had debts of £40,000 and owned equipment worth £342, a fallen down warehouse and a couple of beach huts.

At Faversham the beds were ruined by the effluent upstream from a paper mill.

At Helford in Cornwall after careful husbandry since the 1920s, the entire stock of 8 million oysters was wiped out in the early 1980s by the arrival of bonomia.

The Solent has the greatest natural surviving southern resource of native oysters – which in Mayhew’s time were called Miltons and were far too prized to ever be sold on a London street - but these are mostly the subject of research and the trade is still small. These deeper beds have stayed free of bonomia but the boats have to fight for space alongside hugely expanded yachting interests and massive oil tankers that ply over the same beds. Here there are four tides a day which makes it ideal for raising oysters, but also ideal for running an efficient yachting harbour. Historically the beds date back to Roman times, and possibly the Romans even started cultivation here, but they have never been developed in the same way as the Thames beds, probably because there was not the market locally for them or has not been in living memory.

The frozen Thames

The great winters of the 20th century saw the Thames freezing and society folk skating on the ice. Beneath them the oysters died. A new unknown disease, called tellingly the Black Death spread from the sea into the river, destroying 20 per cent and 50 per cent of the oysters on the beds.

There were other factors too in the oyster decline. The dumping of 1,000 tons of TNT off the coast was dismissed by an official inquiry as being unconnected, but there were also more practical trading reason for the decline of the trade. Post war Europe was not the lucrative market it had been.

Despite these setbacks in the 1920s and 1930s the industry kept up a semblance of prosperity. Then nature intervened. The winters of 1929, 1940 and 1947 were so cold the Thames froze killing millions of oysters. The great tide of 1953 smothered the layings with mud. Finally the hard winter of 1963 killed 85 per cent of the prime stock in Pyefleet and 90 per cent in the Colne. The Essex oystermen’s annual general meeting of 1964 was cancelled due to lack of funds.

There were other factors too, notably the use of TBT (tri-butyl tin) to paint ship’s bottoms which killed oyster larvae and stunted growth. The government was pressured by the nascent yuppie yachting lobby to delay the introduction of the ban until many years after it was introduced in other countries, notably France and Canada. People who owned yachts it seems were a more important political lobby than the men who harvested the catch.

The native oyster was then attacked by a new disease, a parasitic protzoan bonamia which erupted in the 1980s and decimated stocks developing just as the oysters reached breeding age. It was especially virulent around the east coast beds. There have also been serious outbreaks in Ireland, France and New Zealand. Where it is fatal to an oyster, it is harmless to humans.

Disaster disaster disaster

The other critical factor was sewage. The boom in oysters brought more people to the dockside, more people needed more housing. The waste they generated was tipped into the waters to wash away. It seems even that perhaps in the mid 1850s, town planners might have believed that such waste might enrich the oyster beds, that the municipality in some cases even believed that possibly the oysters would filter this waste in the same way that they filtered other impurities. Too often the oyster beds seemed to be the locations identified for the outlet of sewage pipes. The sewage works at Colchester were built next to the fish market at Hythe. Barking municipal authorities put their waste on barges and dumped it on the oyster layings off Southend.

A man called Outing had first discovered that if he bought oysters from Cancale and Poole and laid them on the mudflats they would flourish and fatten off quickly. He started in 1855 and soon had a tram taking 467 tons of oysters to Billingsgate and nine years later the figure was 704 tons. But by 1872 the pollution was so bad the beds were dead, although oysters were laid up at nearby Hadleigh until 1903.

The height of the Essex oyster industry was 1894 when 2.7 million oysters were dredged, the next year it was 3 million, but already the seed of its destruction had been laid.

In 1895 an inquiry found that untreated or inadequately treated sewage pipes were pouring out effluent across some of the finest oyster bearing creeks in the estuary. An outbreak of typhoid was linked to oysters from Brightlingsea Creek, outside the Colchester fishery, but the damage was done. The public started to question its taste for oysters.

Worse was to come from Emsworth in Hampshire.

Oysters had been fished in Emsworth and Warblington near Portsmouth for centuries. There had been a major Roman villa on the site. The Emsworth Oyster Dredgers Co-operative was established in the 1870s to improve and protect the industry. In 1788, 7,000 bushels of native Emsworth oysters were raked and dredged by a dozen master fishermen. The oyster industry flourished as did shipbuilding.

The reputation of the Emsworth oysters brought poaching fleets from the east coast and France. When oysters became scarce the smacks would go to France and bring back spats to grow near the quay in the village. In 1901 between 300 and 400 people, out of a population of some 3,000 were employed in the oyster trade.

From the earliest times drains from all the homes around the harbour ran down to the water, and the waste was taken by the ebb tide. Emsworth was one of the first places to join their drains together and untreated sewage was emptied over the oyster beds.

This story has been embellished over the years to record the death of the Dean of Westminster and the Mayor of Winchester, but in fact only four people died and none seem to have really been the dean or the mayor. Emsworth oysters were served at two separate mayoral banquets on November 10, 1902 at Southampton and Winchester. Everyone who ate oysters fell sick and four people at the Winchester ceremony later died.

The beds were closed. The waters were consigned to their current fate to be used by hobby sailors and the houses would eventually be sold to weekenders and retirees.

The closure of beds was a recurring theme. Local authorities no longer it seemed had much enthusiasm for the oyster beds and closure was a quick solution and certainly a cheaper one than being sued by the oystermen for polluting their beds. Or worse run the risk of being sued by parishioners for poisoning them. So the strange anachronism of English law again, meant that the polluter could simply invoke public health laws and write off the problem rather than make any attempt to deal with the cause, which was the council’s own sewage system. The oystermen faced an authority that was perpetrator, judge, jury and jailer. The councils locked up the oyster beds in the name of public safety, closed them and threw away the keys.

In nearby Shoreham, the beds had already been exhausted before typhoid became a concern. The railways attracted an influx of fishermen from East Anglia and brought a sudden if short lived prosperity to the town - 20,000 tons of oysters were sent to London from Shoreham in 1869 hauled up by 295 boats. There was an oyster pound for underwater storage of oysters in the River Adur at Ropetackle. By the turn of the century they were all but fished out.

The beds at Exmouth were fished out by the 1880s and only used afterwards to fatten on oysters from Falmouth.

The Thames was a bigger and slower death. It had perhaps further to fall. A government rport of 1911 declared: “Oysters are more valuable than any other single product of the fisheries and in at least 25 countries are an important factor in the food supply”. World consumption was estimated at 10 billion oysters. It was said 150,000 people were employed directly and hal;f a million indirectly.

Typhoid was not the oysterman’s only fear. Typhoid from an oysterman’s point of view was a small problem. The oysters could be moved to cleaner waters and would quickly free themselves of the disease.

The beds became prey to a new predator. The voracious slipper limpet had been accidentally imported from Connecticut attached to a cargo of Blue Points. The limpet does not harm the oyster directly. But it is a hungry feeder and competes for food and space. Its faeces muddied the estuary floors. The limpet is in fact also edible, but it is so difficult to get out of its shell that the French have since developed a technique to harvest it and use it as marine manure sold to farmers.

Another unwelcome immigrant was the oyster drill. The drill is a snail. It secretes a chemical to soften the shell of its prey and then inserts a long, toothed structure that extends from its mouth like a file, to drill a hole in the tough oyster shell. It then puts its face into the hole and feeds on the soft meat of the oyster.

Restrictions on fishing during World War One allowed the limpet to overwhelm the oyster beds to the point that sales in 1920 were less than half those of 1898, and in 1930 only a seventh. In 1920, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries officials removed 2,000 tons of slipper limpets from the mouth of the fishery.

The coming of the trains

Two events in the 1800s indelibly changed the English oyster industry and the way of life on the shore. Both might have seemed great technological advances to impoverished seaside communities but were to prove disastrous from the point of view of the oyster and some seaside communities.

It was the railways that really transferred power from the sea to the land.

And the railways arrived in some cases came right up to the dockside. Oyster gathering became industrialised. Before the railways, and later roads, communities were disparate, individual, often poor and isolated. The local beds could sustain and replenish a small community and would naturally restock with only a minimum of husbandry. Even trade with the big cities of London, Southampton, Bristol, Glasgow and Edinburgh would usually have been by boat and so was regulated to an extent by the oystermen themselves. The railways bestowed a land based order and organisation that was to destroy the influence of the watermen and the waters forever.

Suddenly vast quantities of oysters could be harvested and sent directly inland to emerging urban markets. In the same way that the galleons, straight roads and organised trade routes had allowed the Romans to enjoy oysters across their empire, so again here was a push and pulley mechanism to haul huge numbers of oysters and transport them swiftly to expanding cities.

The railways rewrote the economic and social landscape. They brought a plan for urbanisation where before there had been parochial rural agricultural markets and near independent anarchy and smuggling on the coast. New cities were designated where others would be bypassed. In turn the railways brought them more trade and more people. The fishing coves were naturally to be included in the new networks as a valued source of supply.

Swansea was chosen as a destination for the first passenger railway in 1817 which made it briefly a resort of high fashion for the gentry, Bath by the sea, it was called, although the real reason would have been for trading its oysters, its coal, copper, iron, tin and zinc and for its shipping trade with the rest of the world. Here all the values associated with oysters that would have been valued back into the Neolithic could be industrialised, plundered and rationalised. The modern world began. Around the globe the city had become an important trading port and was nicknamed Copperolis. Its coal also fed Swansea's metal smelting works and it supplied a huge export industry in its own right.

In the 17th century oyster dredging in Swansea was still being performed with row boats, but after the railway arrived they were rigged and known as skiffs. A dredge was fitted underneath on all 180 boats working the bay. Each skiff had a crew of three, two men hauling the nets while a boy steered.

It was the roaming Essex boats that showed the Welshmen how to develop their oyster beds. Special boats were built in Bristol which came to be know as Mumble Bees. At one time 600 people were employed in the Welsh oyster industry. In 1871, 10 million oysters were scraped off the sea beds of Swansea Bay and the Gower.

The railway was a large, rapacious and hungry vehicle as were the city markets it supplied. It could suck millions of oysters from the sea to market in a few days. Yes there was boom, but there would be bust too. No natural resource could meet its insatiable uncontrolled mechanical demands. Oysters were mined like coal. And in law there was no protection.

The numbers of people employed soared. At Whitstable in 1793, 36 people formed the original company, but by 1866 it had 408 members, of which more than 300 were working. At Colne 73 people were registered in 1807 but over 400 fifty years later. These figures were probably for boat owners because in other documents 2500 dredgemen are mentioned in Essex waters around 1836, and the Colne fisheries in 1844 had 500 boats and employed 2,000 men, so for sure many more worked in and around the trade.

Boom and doom

Bigger boats meant the oystermen could go further out to sea for longer. There were new discoveries in the Channel of untouched reefs. Off Jersey in 1797 more than 300 smacks from Essex, Shoreham, Emsworth and Faversham sailed for oysters carrying more than two thousand men. In 1823 more than 80,000 bushels were brought back to Essex in 70 voyages. The harbour at Gorey (which also has Iron Age antecedents) became a boom town again. But the fishermen were greedy and within 20 years the beds had been completed denuded.

The Essex boats especially needed young brood stock and would go north to the Forth, west to the Solway. They were not always welcome especially in Scotland where they slept armed on the boats for fear of attack but in other areas the were welcome for their money.

There were also oysters further out in the channel in the deep sea, banks off the French coast sometimes 24 fathoms deep. The Pride of Essex Sail were 132 “first class” ships able to dredge these waters with five dredges each with a six foot wide cutting edge. Another famous oyster reef was found 112 miles off Orford known as Terschelling, a notoriously treacherous and exposed area of the North Sea and where the Lutine was to sink later, whose bell hangs in Lloyds of London.

Many Essex oystermen died trying to upload this harvest of huge oysters, known as skillingers. The boats would go out for 20 days at a time and could bring back 30,000 and more oysters a time. The record set by The Guide in 1887 was 49,000 oysters trawled in a day. Eventually the Essex men acceded their history and sold their boats on to the north sea specialists at Grimsby and deep sea oystering vanished.

Ballad of the Basket of Oysters

In similar rollicking style is The Oyster Girl of which there are printed copies dating back to 1820 and examples as far apart as Aberdeen , Somerset and North Carolina. There are variations sometimes called The Basket of Oysters, the Basket of Eggs or Eggs in her Basket and others from the chorus. Obviously the oyster girl’s reputation as a saucy trickster was well established:

Now Jack was a sailor who roamed on the town.
And she was a damsel who walked up and down.
Said the damsel to Jack as she passed him by,
'Would ye like for to purchase some quare bungle rye raddy rye?'
Fol de diddle rye raddy rye raddy rye.

Thought Jack to himself, 'Now what can this be?'
'But the finest old whiskey from High Germany.
'Smuggled up in a basket and sold on the sly,
'And the name that it goes by is quare bungle rye raddy rye.'
Fol de diddle rye raddy rye raddy rye.

Jack hands her a shilling and he thought nothing strange.
Says she, 'Here hold the basket til I run for your change.'
Jack peeks in the basket and a babe he did spy.
'Why b'damn me,' says Jack, 'this is quare bungle rye raddy rye.'
Fol de diddle rye raddy rye raddy rye.

Now to get the child christened was Jack's first intent,
So to get the child christened to the parson he went.
Says the parson to Jack, 'What's the name he'll go by?'
'Ah b'damn me,' says Jack, 'call 'im quare bungle rye raddy rye.'
Fol de diddle rye raddy rye raddy rye.

Says the parson to Jack, 'That's a mighty quare name.'
'Ah b'damn me," says Jack, 'it's a quare way he came;
'Smuggled up in a basket and sold on the sly,
'And the name that he'll go by is Quare Bungle Rye raddy rye.'
Fol de diddle rye raddy rye raddy rye

Now all you young sailors who roam on the town,
Be wary of damsels that walk up and down.
Take a peek in their baskets as they pass you by,
Or else they may pawn on you Quare Bungle Rye raddy rye
Fol de diddle rye raddy rye raddy rye.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Muisc Hall oyster girls

This lusty song is undated, but may originally have been Irish dating possibly pre 1800 but was a music hall classic for its voluptuous innuendoes and is sometimes credited to London, sometimes Manchester though the geography probably changed according to where it was being sung, usually by a comedian. It seems to have first been printed in 1794 as The Eating of Oysters by M. Randall of Stirling in Scotland.

Basket Of Oysters

As I was walking down a London Street,
A pretty little oyster girl, I chanced for to meet.
I lifted up her basket and boldly I did peek,
Just to see if she's got any oysters.

"Oysters, Oysters, Oysters", said she.
"These are the finest oysters that you will ever see.
I'll sell them three-a-penny but I give 'em to you free,
'Cause I see you're a lover of oysters."

"Landlord, Landlord, Landlord", says I.
"Have you got a little room that's empty and nearby.
Where me and the pretty little oyster girl may lie,
When we bargain for her basket of oysters."

We hadn't been upstairs for a quarter hour more,
When that pretty little oyster girl opened up the door,
She picked my pockets and then down the stair she tore,
She left with her basket of oysters.

"Landlord, Landlord, Landlord", I cried.
"Did you see that little oyster girl drinking by my side?
She's gone and picked my pocket", but the landlord just replied,
"You shouldn't be so fond of your oysters."

Now all you young men be advised by me,
If you meet a pretty oyster girl and you would merry be,
Sew the pockets of your trousers and throw away the key,
Or you'll never get a taste of her oysters.

WS Gilbert

The original Billingsgate market

WS Gilbert was amazed by the dynamism and size of Billingsgate Market.

“With regard to the oyster trade, suffice it here to say that the smacks and other vessels, when they arrive, are moored in front of the wharf, to form what is called "Oyster Street." The 4th of August is still "oyster day," as it used to be, and it is still a wonderful day of bustle and excitement at Billingsgate.

Then on following up a market report he conjectured: " These figures nearly take one's breath away. What on earth becomes of the shells of five hundred million oysters, and the hard red coats of the eighteen hundred thousand lobsters and crabs, besides the shells of the mussels, cockles, and winkles, which are not here enumerated? Another learned authority, Mr. Braithwaite Poole, when he was goods manager of the London and North-Western Railway Company, brought the shell-fish as well as the other fish into his calculations, and startled us with such quantities as fifty million mussels, seventy million cockles, three hundred million periwinkles, five hundred million shrimps, and twelve hundred million herrings. In short, putting this and that together, he told us that about four thousand million fish, weighing a quarter of a million tons, and bringing two million sterling, were sold annually at Billingsgate! Generally speaking, Mr. Poole's figures make a tolerably near approach to those of Mr. Mayhew; and therefore it may possibly be that we Londoners---men and women, boys, girls, and babies---after supplying country folks--- eat about two fish each every average day, taking our fair share between turbot, salmon, and cod at one end of the series, and sprats, periwinkles and shrimps at the other.

Henry Mayhew

Henry Mayhew’s chronicles of London street life in the 19th century London Labour and The London poor were probably used for reference by Dickens. He said the oyster trade was one of the oldest in the city. Oysters were bought off the smacks moored at Billingsgate or further west less so at Hungerford, where Charing Cross Station now stands. Or else they were hawked around the streets. He mentions in 1848 the arrival at Borough market of much larger oysters, called Scuttlemouths brought from the Sussex coasts – presumably some new discovery of an ancient bed - which were highly fashionable for a time, largely because they were a cheap street food, known as coarse oysters, having very thick shells and less meat, possibly what the French refer to as a pied de cheval (horse’s hoof), not dissimilar to the ones the Kent oystermen disparaged from Cancale. His descriptions are precise

“The costermongers have nicknamed the long row of oyster boats moored close alongside the wharf “Oyster Street”. On looking down the line of tangled ropes and masts, it seems as though the little boats would sink with the crowds of men and women thronged together on their decks. It is as busy a scene as one can well behold. Each boat has its black signboard and salesman in his white apron walking up and down “his shop”, and on each deck is a bright pewter pot and tin covered plate, the remains of the salesman’s breakfast...the red cap of the man in the hold bobs up and down as he rattles the shells about with his spade. These holds are filled with oysters – a grey mass of shell and sand – on which is a bushel measure well piled up in the centre…”

Mayhew is also capable of daring insights into the people behind his portraits. He quotes a well bred lady who has come on hard times and turned to selling oysters in the street describing her custom:

“It's not a very few times that gentlemen (I call them so because they're mostly so civil) will stop -- just as it's getting darkish, perhaps, -- and look about them, and then come to me and say very quick: `Two penn'orth for a whet.'
“Ah! some of 'em will look, may be, like poor parsons down upon their luck, and swallow their oysters as if they was taking poison in a hurry. They'll not touchthe bread or butter once in twenty times, but they'll be free with the pepper and vinegar, or, mayhap, they'll say quick and short, `A crust off that.'
“I many a time think that two pen-n'orth is a poor gentleman's dinner.”

Mayhew estimated that 3500 costermongers could have been involved in the trade in London, picking up barrel loads from the boats and hawking them around the streets or selling on to “oyster rooms” or to servants who would take them back to larger houses for elegant dinners. In some taverns it is even suggested oysters were offered free on the bar to encourage drinking.

William Makepeace Thackeray - eating babies

William Makepeace Thackeray said famously of the larger imported oysters coming from America that they were so big “it was like eating a baby”

Charles Dickens - secretive, self contained, solitary

Charles Dickens’ often quoted passage from the Pickwick Papers is worth giving in full because it is so evocative of London and Thames life a century and more later

Not a very nice neighbourhood this, sir” said Sam, with a touch of the hat, which always preceded his entering into conversation with his master.
“It is not indeed,Sam,” replied Mr Pickwick, surveying the crowded and filthy street through which they were passing.
“It’s a very remarkable circumstance, sir,” said Sam,“that poverty and oysters always seems to go together.”
“I don’t understand, Sam,” said Mr. Pickwick.
“What I mean, sir,” said Sam, “is, that the poorer a place is, the greater call there seems to be for oysters. Look here, sir; here’s a oyster stall to every half dozen houses. The streets lined vith ‘em. Blessed if I don’t think that ven a man’s wery poor, he rushes out of his lodgings and eats oysters in reg’lar desperation.”

Dickens also in a Christmas Carol characterizes the oyster as:

Secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”.

He also wrote a short story called Love and Oysters which he later re-titled The Misplaced Attachment of Mr John Dounce who gave up his friends and family for his infatuation for an oyster girl who refused his advances.

Jonathan Swift - A Bold Man

The Irish satirist Jonathan Swift is often credited with thinking up this thought in the 1700s.

“It was a bold man that first ate on oyster”

Swift was not short of clever one liners, but in this case he borrowed it from Thomas Fuller's Worthies of England which was published 40 years earlier in 1662 and attributed to James 1:

“He was a very valiant man who first adventured on eating of oysters"

This in turn was also made a more poetic growl by John Gay:

The man had a sure palate cover’d o’er
With brass or steel, that on the rocky shore
First broke the oozy oyster’s pearly coat
And risqu’d the living morsel down his throat

Swift obviously overcame his own fear of oysters and went on to pen this poem by which time he was an enthusiastic convert.

Charming oysters I cry:
My masters, come buy,
So plump and so fresh,
So sweet is their flesh,
No Colchester oyster
Is sweeter and moister:
Your stomach they settle,
And rouse up your mettle:
They'll make you a dad
Of a lass or a lad;
And madam your wife
They'll please to the life;
Be she barren, be she old,
Be she slut, or be she scold,
Eat my oysters, and lie near her,
She'll be fruitful, never fear her.

In letters Swift went as far as passing on a recipe:

Lord Masham made me go home with him to-night to eat boiled oysters. Take oysters, wash them clean; that is, wash their shells clean; then put your oysters into an earthen pot, with their hollow sides down, then put this pot into a great kettle with water, and so let them boil. Your oysters are boiled in their own liquor, and not mixed water.”

And eventually in Gulliver’s Travels he has his hero gathering oysters and limpets on the shore (which he eats raw for fear of lighting a fire that might attract attention) to conserve his provisions

Samuel Pepys - Bardsey oysters

Samuel Pepys mentions oysters frequently in his diaries. He also records twice buying pearl necklaces, one for £4/10/- in 1660 and then six years later another for £80. More frequently the mentions illustrate the way in which oysters were part of a gentleman’s life. In 1660 he was at sea:

“In the afternoon the Captain would by all means have me up to his cabin, and there treated me huge nobly, giving me a barrel of pickled oysters, and opened another for me, and a bottle of wine, which was a very great favour.”

And then a few days later, we discover he was not such a great sailor, but oysters were a catch-all cure all anyway:

This day, about nine o'clock in the morning, the wind grew high, and we being among the sands lay at anchor; I began to be dizzy and squeamish. Before dinner my Lord sent for me down to eat some oysters, the best my Lord said that ever he ate in his life, though I have ate as good at Bardsey. After dinner, and all the afternoon I walked upon the deck to keep myself from being sick, and at last about five o'clock, went to bed.”

Bardsey might have been the holy island off north Wales, or nearer and perhaps more likely Bawdsey in Suffolk, either way, both would have had copious resources.

Shakespear - rich honesty dwells

Shakespeare was fluent. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, he has Pistol saying:

“Why, then the world's mine oyster.
Which I with sword will open”

In Richard II,

“Off goes his bonnet to an oyster wench”

Then this intriguing line in Much Ado

“Love may transform me to an oyster”

Then there is this curious and haunting image from As You Like It when Touchstone pronounces:

Rich honesty dwells like a miser, sir, in a poor house; as your pearl in your foul oyster”

And King Lear’s Fool jests:

“Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?”

Chaucer on oysters

The language of each era offers its own inflections and insights. From the first days of print, the oyster was at hand.

Chaucer had it as a useful rhyme here quite interestingly elastic:

In the Summoners Tale

For many a muscle and many an oystre,
Whan othere men han ben ful wel at eyse,
Hath been oure foode,

And in the Monk’s Tale

“Know that a monk when he is cloister-less
Is likened to a fish that is water-less
This is to seyn, a monk out of his cloister
But thilke text held he not worth an oyster
And I seyde his opinion was good.”

1 bushel basket = 53 pounds = 18 quarts canned

Weights and measures

Far more confusing a language was used for weights of catch, probably deliberately. The very richness of dialect suggests the kind of slight of hand and trading wiles that would have been employed on the harbour front.

Already the Parliamentary enquiry of the 1730s had discovered that a Winchester bushel was a third less than the weight of an oyster bushel; as used in Billingsgate market. At the same time The Amsterdam pound was also 40 grams more than an English pound.

Linguistically the terminology was nothing short of genius. For the buying of spat on the Thames the measurement was a tub, which was the same as a bushel which was 21 gallons 1 quart and 1/2 a pint. Then there was a wash, being a quarter of a tub and was used by oystermen selling spat to the merchant. But then a wash was equal to a peck, while a nipperkin was one sixteenth of a tub and a bucket was one third of a wash or one and half of a tub. This was not a trade for the unwary or uninitiated (indeed to protect their jobs, in the 1800s the Essex oystermen instituted a seven year apprenticeship which was an early form of trade union closed shop to keep the business in the family as the Kentish men had done).

The language was different again from wholesale to retail. The merchants used a prickle, marked by a seal on a basket of oysters to denote half a tub. But in Winchester, Hampshire they had their own terms calling two quarts a pottle, a more commonly used term then for fruit and vegetables and ironic for the city that would later rule on the weight of a bushel in 1826 with the result that an American bushel and an English bushel are not the same either.

A tierce, was borrowed from the wine trade, and contained 42 gallons.

At Billingsate market, all fish was sold by the tale (sic) except salmon which was sold by the weight and oysters and shellfish which were sold by…the measure.

This drinking song The Barley Moe celebrates such linguistic chicanery. Each verse has to change the weight of measure and add on the last one:

It starts out as

Now here's jolly good luck to the quarter gill
Good luck to the Barley Mow
Jolly good luck to the quarter gill
Good luck to the Barley Mow
Oh, the quarter gill
Fetch in a little drop more…

And ends up eventually, presumably after a sip at each verse, with…

Jolly good luck to the company, good luck to the Barley Mow
Here's good luck to the company, the daughter, the cooper,
the brewer, the daughter, the landlady, the landlord, the full ton
the half ton, the barrel, the half barrel, the gallon,
the half gallon, the quart pot, pint pot, half pint, gill pot,
half a gill, quarter gill, nipperkin, and the brown bowl.
Here's good luck, good luck to the Barley Mow

Good luck, to the Barley Mow, indeed.


Wherever there are oysters, and indeed other kinds of shellfish, local patois invariably emerge. In the Thames it was smacks and creeks. In Whitsable the boats seem to have generically been called smacks, but these were usually of two kinds. There was the yawl which was the main boat for smuggling and for oystering which had a boomed mainsail, a topsail, foresail, and jib. Less numerous was a borley, distinguished from the yawl by her straight-cut stern like a rowing boat, and her boomless upright mainsail, which, let her sail closer to the shore but offered less canvas to the wind making her less manoeuvrable, and was usually preferred by shrimpers rather than oystermen. These boats were nimble and sailed square to the tide to dredge the oysters along with tide and wind, in contrast to trawlers that employed heavier gear. Trawling is a different skill, even with steam and engines.

Even after the advent of engines, yawl skippers often preferred working the tide with just sail. They would drift without a tiller and allow the dredge to skim the top of the oyster reef without breaking the foundations. If they went with the tide, then the catch rose up easily behind the boat, like taking the cream off the milk.

Smuggling and the black economy

In the 1700s the Whitstable the smacks were fully engaged in smuggling. Oystermen willingly threw their boats into the illicit trade. Vicious hikes in taxes to pay for the wars in France had made commodities expensive and hard to find. Flushing in Holland (now Vlissingen in the Netherlands), Calais, Boulogne, Dieppe, Dunkirk, Nante, Lorient and Le Havre in France all were anxious to sell contraband to their southerly neighbour. The Channel Islands enjoyed unrestricted trade, and was used as a staging post until 1767 when the British government stepped in to claim its duties. The French responded by developing the then unknown and unfrequented port of Roscoff into a major depot to supply Devon and Cornwall. In a few years, the port was transformed from cottage settlements to commodious houses and large stores run often by immigrant English, Scots, Irish and Guernsey merchants.

The smugglers needed to carry small packages. They could not break large illegal quantities down in the ports where the customs could see them. They needed to distribute their goods quickly, a trade to which an oyster smack was familiar and well suited. And there was more money in it.

Some barely needed to sail across the Channel, but would use their sailing skills to hove close to a passing ship and take receipt of a few small cases of tobacco or rum or tea. Or they built rafts a few miles outside the estuary on to which they could stash the contraband, mark it with a blown up bladder and a feather and using their knowledge of the currents, let it drift unseen past the customs houses to be retrieved safely a few hours later at low tide.

On reaching Faversham in Kent, Daniel Defoe wrote in his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain in 1824-6:
“... I know nothing else this town is remarkable for, except the most notorious smuggling trade, carried on partly by the assistance of the Dutch, in their oyster boats....the people hereabouts are arrived to such proficiency, that they are grown monstrous rich by that wicked trade.”

Faversham grew fat on the skills of its oystermen and its shipbuilders, even if in part that wealth might have been delivered in the dead of night. But when the oyster harvest was plentiful they must have done very well. The Faversham oyster men ran the fishery as a monopoly between father and sons which dates back to at least as early as the town charter. In good years they earned good money as much of the local architecture can testify. In 1703 a wash of oysters could be sold for £3, and on a good trip a boat might bring back 120 wash . The Dutch paid top prices.

Where there was smuggling, there were oysters. The means for one was the means for the other. Oysters could also be the booty. George IV tried to pass a law that “any person that shall steal any oyster brood shall be deemed guilty of larceny. But in 1814 an Essex fisherman stole three gallons of oyster spat from Chichester harbour and re-laid them near Colchester. He refused to pay the £10 fine. On appeal the House of Lords dismissed the case on the grounds that “his purpose was not to destroy but to preserve”.

This was not the odd clandestine moonlight run, but a full blown black economy that had been flourishing for centuries. One Cherbourg house in 1768 was shipping 200 gallons of brandy a month on to English boats. If there was any danger of being caught the kegs were dropped over the side and marked with tubular lanterns to be retrieved later. Once on land the respectable Whitstable townsfolk showed no qualms about putting one over the revenue. The port was also busy with coal and many a coal cart had been adapted with a false bottom to move the contraband around inland. Tea was another prized contraband due to the high taxes it carried. Ostrich feathers were another lucrative trade. At times it was said there was so much illicit gin in Kent that villagers used it to clean their windows. Anything to outwit the customs was fine.

An often retold story, recalls how a gang of sailors realised that the English guinea coin was worth more in France than in England, 28 shillings against 21 shillings. They amassed a haul of 300 coins and set sail from Faversham but were intercepted by police. Quickly they stashed the coins in a pot of tar. The customs found no contraband on board and the men were freed but the ship was impounded for a year. Magistrates ordered it to be broken up and its contents sold. The crew reappeared at the auction and reclaimed their money with a token bid for a seemingly worthless pot of tar…and got their undiscovered guineas back.

Even in war, there would have been both camaraderie and closeness among the sailors, on both sides of the Channel and an easy familiarity with ways of trading with each other Allegiance had little to do with land based politics. Richard Platt in his informative relates:

During the Napoleonic wars the enormous numbers of POWs put a considerable strain on the country's resources, and led to a vast prison building program (including Dartmoor). Many French prisoners lived in appalling conditions in prison hulks — filthy, overcrowded and disease-ridden vessels anchored off-shore. Through an elaborate network of contacts and safe havens, prisoners who succeeded in escaping from the hulks would be brought to London, then smuggled on a hoy or an oyster-boat to a timber platform at the low-tide mark near Whitstable.
This platform was a mooring for the oyster-boats and fishing vessels that were prevented from reaching the true shoreline at low-tide by the two-mile wide ribbon of mud that fringes the beaches here. Mingling with fishing folk and wildfowlers, the French escapees were able to make their way back to the shore, rest up and hide for a few days, then make a clandestine departure one dark night from Swalecliffe Rock — a shingle spit close to the Herne Bay road. Relatives of the wealthier prisoners would no doubt have paid handsomely for their safe return, and the arrangement no doubt suited the smugglers, who would otherwise have had to pay for their returning

An ingenious Cornish story tells how the landside smuggler would feed a rope down the town sewage pipes and float it out on the tide. When it appeared at the other end, his mate attached a parcel of contraband and then it could be hauled up into the main street, usually by the pub where it could be quickly sold and distributed. A variation on this same tale is told by a customs officer who intercepted such ropes at low tide and confiscated the booty, attaching a note saying: “The End is Nigh” and then hot footed it up to the main street to arrest the culprit as he hauled up his hoped-for contraband.

The remoteness of some of the oyster beds made them ideal for smuggling. Orford in Suffolk was patrolled twice a week by a customs and search officers from Aldeburgh. As late as 1856 one local ship's master observed that by timing his visit carefully, he could spend two days in Orford harbour unloading an incoming cargo — perhaps here wine — and loading a new one for export to the continent. The King's Head at Orford was used as a storehouse for goods run at Hollesley Bay. Symbollically, Hollesley is now a men’s open prison.

And inland oysters were already being taken long distances to Warwick and in Preston there was an Oyster and Parched Pea club established from 1771 to 1841. This was a small gathering originally of 12 Tories and the local school master who met for oysters, port and peas and apparently told each other ribald stories – too ribald for the Preston Gazette unfortunately to deem fit for publication after its demise. Presumably such routes also allowed for the contraband to slip easily across county borders.

Vigilant siezes contraband

This lithograph by John Christian Schetky records the Vigilant after she had captured the barge Charlotte, which was trying to smuggle 14,400 lbs (7,000 kilos) of tobacco, in 1849. The Times said that this was probably the largest seizure on the Thames of tobacco in 30 years.
Later it reported:

Smuggling on the Thames
– At the county magistrate’s-office, Rochester, on Friday, William Woolf, John Stanley, William Warren, and two boys named French and Howe, were brought up in custody of Bines, at the instance of the board of Customs, having on the 18th inst. Been found at Cliff on board a certain vessel liable to forfeiture, having on board 14,402 lbs. of contraband tobacco. From the evidence of Captain Gowlland, Commander of the Vigilant revenue cutter, and James Clarke, the gunner, it appeared that about nine o’clock on the night of the 13th inst, while cruising off Sea Reach, in the lower Hope, near Gravesend, they observed a vessel coming up the river on the Kent side, and on hailing her were told she was the Charlotte,of Maldon, from the Burnham river. On boarding her they found straw loosely laid about abaft the mast, and on removing it and opening the hatches, they discovered in the hold of the vessel 20 casks containing no less than 278 bales of tobacco packed in canvass and along with cords ready for running, averaging about 50 lb. weight each. The crew were then made prisoners and put on board the cutter for safety, and with the vessel and cargo were afterwards brought to Rochester. The court convicted the whole of them in the penalty of £100 each. Recommending the two boys to the mercy of the Crown, but the penalties were not paid, and the prisoners were accordingly committed to Maidstone Gaol.
- The Times, London 6 February 1832